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It's time for change at Boro to keep promotion push alive
AN EIGHTH defeat of the calendar year has seen Middlesbrough drop down to their lowest league placing since October. A season promising so much before the turn of the year is suddenly in serious danger of ending in failure.
With ten matches remaining in the Championship, Boro are now two points shy of the play-off places and if fifth-placed Leicester City and Brighton in sixth take advantage of their game in hand the gap could be considerably wider.
The situation means Middlesbrough are staring at the increasingly real prospect of missing out on promotion - again. That would mean a fifth year outside of the Premier League and a further summer of cuts in costs.
There will be nobody inside the club’s Rockliffe Park training headquarters ready to throw in the towel with 30 points to play for, but to stand a chance of a top six finish there are a number of things in need of change.
STOP CONCEDING SO MANY GOALS
IN recent times Tony Mowbray has rightly pointed out that defending corners has become a particular weakness and in desperate need of addressing.
A dejected Nicky Bailey after the Huddersfield match on Tuesday night
Huddersfield’s Alan Lee became the latest Championship footballer to benefit from Middlesbrough’s generosity from a set-piece on Tuesday night, as the Terriers piled on the misery.
Defending corners has not been the only problem. Only five teams in the division have conceded more than the 55 which Middlesbrough have let in - and all of those teams, including Huddersfield, have significant relegation concerns.
Chopping and changing the defence, admittedly because of injuries, has been a huge factor since the first half of the season when, with the exception of Jonathan Woodgate missing out occasionally, the back five tended to pick itself.
STRIKERS NEED TO FIRE AGAIN
SINCE New Year’s Day when Lukas Jutkiewicz grabbed the consolation in a 3-1 defeat at Derby County, Mowbray has seen league goals dry up for his strikers.
Injuries to Jutkiewicz, Ishmael Miller and Scott McDonald have hardly helped, but one of the benefits of having plenty of options earlier in the season was that the Middlebsrough boss could tinker regularly.
If only that were true. McDonald, who found the net at Huddersfield, and Curtis Main are the only two strikers to have scored since January 1. And with Marvin Emnes not showing signs of bursting in to the sort of form which earned him 18 goals last season, Mowbray needs more.
With the exception of McDonald and possibly the inexperienced Main, it is hard to argue that any of the other strikers deserve to be starting games at this stage.
There is still time to bring a new striker in on loan, but if only Middlesbrough had signed 39-year-old Kevin Phillips!
FIND A FORMULA AND STICK TO IT
MOWBRAY is a stickler for tactics. As a student of the game, he believes in trying to prevent the opposition from playing just as much as coming up with a plan to breakdown defences.
Earlier in the campaign the adjustments he would make had the desired effect. A relatively large squad, with varying degrees of experience, was kept happy because most players felt as if they had a part to play in the promotion push.
Fast-forward to a period where Middlesbrough have picked up just seven points from the last 33 available and suddenly the team seems to be crying out for continuity.
In a perfect world Woodgate and Kieron Dyer, on the evidence of his display against Cardiff last Saturday, would be fit for every game.
The reality is that Mowbray always knew that would not be the case and he will be fortunate to have them available for half of the final ten games.
Now is the time for the Middlesbrough boss to have a clear picture in mind for his best team and stick with it until injuries dictate otherwise.
PLAYING PLAYERS OUT OF POSITION
INJURIES have forced many of the decisions made by Mowbray since the turn of the year. For example, without the injured Stuart Parnaby and Justin Hoyte, midfielder Nicky Bailey would not have been asked to play right-back.
The arrival of Sammy Ameobi has introduced a different dimension out wide for Middlesbrough and they looked good with the Newcastle man operating on one side and Dyer the other last weekend.
Richie Smallwood in action against Huddersfield
But it has always seemed strange to see the likes of Josh McEachran or Richie Smallwood - both centre-midfielders by preference - being asked to run up and down the flank.
It is not that Middlesbrough are short of options on the wing - Mustapha Carayol, Adam Reach, Luke Williams and Emmanuel Ledesma to name four - but Mowbray has preferred the more defensive side of Smallwood/McEachran’s game.
Attack could well be the best form of defence if Middlesbrough are to finish the season on a high.
FANS MUST STICK WITH THE TEAM AND BOSS
FRUSTRATIONS have grown among the fans and Mowbray’s decisions are coming under greater scrutiny.
Most sensible observers would still have to agree that he remains the best man for the job and, despite slipping out of the play-off zone, he has still got them in the promotion mix despite overseeing significant cost cuts to the playing budget.
More than £20m has been saved from a wage bill standing at around the £35m mark when he took over from Gordon Strachan in October 2010. That said, though, Middlesbrough’s budget remains one of the highest in the Championship.
It is difficult to see what the benefits would be if frustrated supporters started to show their feelings more. Times are hard, but could be even harder without Mowbray.